Friday Depressaganza: The Aral Sea shrank by 80% in last 3 years

Now you see it...: Now you still do, but less so.
Now you see it...: Now you still do, but less so.Courtesy NASA
Sometimes I like my bad news to be unsurprising. Not that I don’t appreciate a little excitement from time to time, but dealing with the unexpected in addition to the unpleasant can be a lot to handle at once. Consider the following two situations:

1) You wake up in your basement bedroom one morning, and look down to discover that your right hand has been almost completely eaten by cockroaches while you were sleeping. “Oh no!” you say. “Cockroaches have been eating me! And I’m missing a hand now!”

2) You wake up in your luxury penthouse one morning, and look down to confirm that your right hand has been almost completely eaten by cockroaches while you were sleeping. “Oh no!” you say. “I’m missing a hand now! But at least the cockroaches were right on schedule.”

Do you see how the second scenario is a little better? Sure, your hand is still gone, but at least it wasn’t a surprise.

This is why the news item concerning the status of the Aral Sea I noticed today was, in its own way, sort of pleasing.

Oh? You don’t know about the Aral Sea? Hey, don’t worry about it, because it won’t matter in a few years. The Aral Sea is shrinking. And not the itty-bitty few inches a year sort of shrinking that scientists worry about. More like the “Oh, we made one of the largest inland bodies of water totally disappear over the course of a few decades? Our bad!” sort of shrinking.

See, if you ever encounter someone who is of the opinion that humans can’t have any real, lasting impact on the natural world, the Aral Sea is a good thing to point out. The Aral was big. An inland sea. 26,000 square miles of water next door to Kazakhstan, fleets of fishing boats, that sort of thing. In 1960, however, the USSR decided to divert the rivers feeding the Aral, so that their water could be used to irrigate the deserts of central Asia for crops. And the sea started to shrink.

It shrank so much that the fishermen had to move their docks. And then they had to move them again. And again. And eventually they couldn’t move their boats fast enough, and they had to abandon the vessels. Even if they could have followed the water, the shrinking volume caused the sea to become so salty that few of the native species could live in it any longer anyhow.

An abandoned fishing ship: On the former sea floor.
An abandoned fishing ship: On the former sea floor.Courtesy Staecker
Twenty years ago, the sea had shrunk so much that it split in two: the northern Small Aral Sea, and the southern Large Aral Sea. By 2000, the Large Aral sea had shrunk enough that it split, into eastern and western lobes.

Now, comparing new data with satellite images from 2006, scientists have determined that the eastern lobe of the Large Aral Sea has shrunk by 80% since then; it’s just one-fifth the size it was only three years ago.

While attempts are being made to save the Small Aral Sea, scientists figure that the Large Aral Sea will have completely dried out by 2020.

Eh heh. Whoops. At least it won't have been a surprise.

Anyway, enjoy the pictures. And let that be a lesson to you kids! You screw around with your inland seas, and they’ll be gone like that! Or something.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

SyDnEy_RaE's picture
SyDnEy_RaE says:

how does that happen?i dont understand how water masses shrink...is it the expansion of land mass or what?

posted on Tue, 07/14/2009 - 3:11pm
JGordon's picture
JGordon says:

Nope. I think what usually causes bodies of water to shrink is something causing more water to be removed than is replaced. So when lakes around Minnesota shrink, it's generally because it hasn't been raining enough to make up for the water lost to evaporation. Sometimes cities will draw lots of water off of lakes (the Great Lakes, for instance, provide billions of gallons of water to Canada and the Midwest), and that can potentially affect their levels.

I don't believe that anybody was drawing water from the Aral Sea, but the two rivers that used to feed into it and keep it full were diverted—that is, the water was forced to change direction, so that instead of flowing in the the Aral, it flowed onto the desert, so people could grow crops there. With much less water coming into the Aral, the sea just began to evaporate.

posted on Wed, 07/15/2009 - 10:01am

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